George Bridgetower, violin virtuoso. Part One

Over the next few weeks we are having a slight change to the usual weekly format in so much as I’m going to take a fairly detailed look at one person in particular and tell you a little about his life story and that of his family, so please do tune in each week for the next part of the story, be warned, we’re in for a long, complicated and very bumpy ride.

George’s early years

Genius does not solely belong to the tincture of a skin’ a quote from the Chester Chronicle, 1789 used when describing a certain child protégé. Who was this child, apart from being someone who was extremely talented?

The answer appears to be someone with a very complicated and confusing ancestry, which, over the centuries no-one has actually been able to completely fathom out. Despite the advances in technological access to archival material, which has given access to more nuggets of information, the same degree of uncertainty about some parts of his life remain today, even his surname seems to confuse, it was either Bridgetower, with the ‘e’ or Bridgtower without. The majority of people who have written about George favour the former, so I’ll go with that for now.

Over the next few weeks, I shall recount some of his life story, and, for a guess, by the end of it you will remain as stumped by it as I am about his genealogy.

George Bridgetower by Henry Edridge c1790
George Bridgetower by Henry Edridge c1790

For those who haven’t heard of him, let me introduce you to George Augustus Polgreen/Polegreen Bridgetower who was believed to have been born on 11 October 1778 in Biala, Poland according to an article in The Musical Times of 1981,[1] although different sources offer different dates of birth for him, but this appears to be the most likely, as it on George’s application to join the Royal Society of Musicians.

The other date offered being 13 August 1778 and that he was baptised as Hieronymus Hyppolitus de Augustus. His father being Joanis Fredericus de Augustus and his mother being Maria Ursula de Augustus (née Schmid/Schmit/Sovinki) or possibly Mary Ann.

As you can imagine trying to track down a copy of George’s birth has proved elusive, to say the least.

The only nugget of information I have come across which might make sense of that entry, was the one below possibly for possibly son, Johannes Albertus Bridgetown, not Bridgetower, in Mainz, Germany some nine years after George was born, but of course this could be a red herring and to date there is no evidence of this child surviving to adulthood and his name is never mentioned in any biography about George.

The surname used by the family is unusual, which perhaps does indicate that Johannes was one of their children, but whether this child survived into adulthood, who knows. Hopefully one day it will be possible to see George’s baptism, just to set the record straight once and for all.

Birth of Johannes
Birth of Johannes

Just to confuse matters further, George’s father seems to have been referred to as either John Frederick Bridgetower or Friedrich de Bridgetower and worked in the household as a servant of Prince Nikolai Esterházy, where he gave several different stories about his origins (a favourite being that he was an African prince)[2], but again there is no conclusive evidence.

The castle of Prince Nikolai contained an opera house and a puppet theatre where the composer Haydn was the Kapellmeister (musical director). If George had been spotted as a child prodigy, Haydn would have been the perfect person to help him develop his talent.

Brown, Mather; Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809); The Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain; There was another son, Frederick, again, at present it is impossible to say when he was born, but he too was a talented musician, but we will return to him later.

Sometime before 1789 the family left the court of Prince Nikolai and, according to The World newspaper of 2 January 1789, George made his performing debut as a violinist:

A young negro, named George Frederick Augustus Brigdetower, has made his entrée into the world as a musician. He played at a public concert on the 2d instant at Cleves, with very great applause, and promised to be one of the first players in Europe. His natural genius was first cultivated by the celebrated Hayden, and afterwards by the Sieur Schick He speaks many languages and appears distinguishingly from others of his cast and colour.

In April of that year in Paris, according to an article on the British Museum website, by Dr Mike Phillips,

The journal Le Mercure de France raved about his performance, concluding that “his talent is one of the best replies one can give to philosophers who wish to deprive people of his nation and his colour of the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the arts”.

George was obviously an exceptionally gifted young musician and his father, a great public relations machine for his son, trying to get his talent showcased at all the best venues – Paris, London and Bath, places that would have been popular with the elite.

In a plan to drum up interest in George, his father was telling all the right people that his son was the ‘son of the African Prince’ and, to ensure that the message got across loud and clear, he would wear exotic costumes and parade through the streets. His father was certainly no shrinking violet.

This report was noted in many of the regional newspapers of the day, from the Kentish Gazette, to Saunders Newsletter in Dublin to the Stamford Mercury. It appears that the whole country was taking an interest in this very talented young man and the Whitehall Evening Post[3] decided to share a little background to the family.

The African Prince now at Brighthelmstone has a son of ten years old, possessed of amazing talents.

This extraordinary genius has been presented to the Prince of Wales, who intends to recommend him to the professional concert, as an acceptable novelty to the admirers and lovers of music. He plays with exquisite Mastership on the violin.

The grandfather of this extraordinary youth was committed to the care of a Dutch captain with diamonds to a great amount, and gold dust to be carried to Europe and educated.

After experiencing much barbarous treatment from the avaricious Hollander, the unfortunate prince was sold, as a slave, to a Jamaican planter.

The unhappy man met, however with a kind master to alleviate his misfortunes, and married an African woman, by whom he had the father of this boy.

At the grandfather’s demise, the father was still high in his master’s favour, at whose expense he was instructed in several languages. At the age of fifteen, he was permitted to make a voyage to Africa, with proper testimonials of his birth; but by a singular fatality was shipwrecked and lost his documents. Being conversant in several languages, he gained a subsistence by acting as interpreter to various foreign Potentates in Europe.

By 14 August 1789, it was the Chester Chronicle who were writing about George in the most glowing terms

The musical world is likely to be enriched by the greatest phenomenon ever heard – a youth of ten years old, pupil of the immortal Haydn – he performs the most difficult pieces on the violin, and goes through all the mazes of sound with wonderful spirit, execution and delicacy. His name is Bridgetower a sable plant of an African growth: Thus, do we find that genius does not solely belong to the tincture of a skin. He is now at Brighthelmstone, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales.

George IV when Prince of Wales, 1782 by Thomas Gainsborough. © Royal Collection Trust
George IV when Prince of Wales, 1782 by Thomas Gainsborough. © Royal Collection Trust

So, it would appear that young George’s career was definitely on the up and had come to the attention of the royal family as noted in The Morning Star, 3 October 1789 –

On Friday evening the son of the African Prince performed on the violin with exquisite skill, before their majesties and the princesses at Windsor Lodge. This musical phenomenon gave inexpressible delight to his royal auditory.  His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales was his recommendatory introducer to the access of his royal parents.

Do join me next week to find out more about George’s life and career in the second of four parts.

 

[1] The Musical Times vol.122 no.1656 (February 1981), p.85

[2] http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/blackeuro/bridgetowerbackground.html

[3] Whitehall Evening Post 28 July 1790

Featured Image

King’s Theatre, Haymarket. Royal Collection Trust

6 thoughts on “George Bridgetower, violin virtuoso. Part One

  1. mistyfan

    Another thing Georgian that still has us stumped is the Elizabeth Canning case in 1753. The one where Canning disappeared for a month, emerged in a terrible state and claimed she’d been held prisoner by a couple of women. Loads of people believed her, but she was ultimately convicted of perjury, and to this day nobody knows the truth. It inspired “The Franchise Affair” by Josephine Tey. If you haven’t covered this one already, I’d like to see your take on it.

    Like

    1. Sarah Murden

      There seems to have been much written about the Elizabeth Canning case which is, in part, why I haven’t written about it, but I’ll definitely add it to my list to take a look at, you just never know what you might find, but it’s often the case that when you’re looking so far back into history the information simply doesn’t exist, but I do love a challenge 🙂

      Like

  2. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 38) | www.weyerman.nl

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